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‘Unafraid’ Documentary Showcases Tree of Life Housing Impact

While Tree of Life Ministries is most known for its food pantry headquartered in Purcellville, the organization recently released a documentary highlighting the impact of a lesser-known branch of its services—housing for individuals with disabilities.

“Unafraid”tells the story of Sam Mason, a Loudoun County resident who first became involved with the organization when it began a respite program for families of children with special needs, providing parents a safe place to drop of their child twice a month, free of charge.

The eight-minute film was made by creator of , Ethan Weitz, who specializes in telling the stories of nonprofits in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC.

Still Waters is the name of TOL’s program that focuses on individuals with disabilities, or partners, as the nonprofit calls them. Launched as a twice-a-month service, it soon transformed into support for the entire family as volunteers found that parents were looking for advice, encouragement and support from other parents facing the same challenges.

“The best thing about it is it just creates these friendships that are lacking especially as you become an adult and you have a disability and you’re out of school and unemployed,” Program Director Cindy Welsh said.

Director of Communications Jennifer Del Grande said TOL began looking into an expansion of the program as they saw the great need for work opportunities for individuals with disabilities once they graduate high school.

“We’ve always been focused on just finding what the needs are and then filling them as best we can,” Del Grande said.

In response, TOL opened SimplyBe Coffee in Leesburg in 2020. Mason became one of its first employees. Since then, SimplyBe has provide 30 individuals with work experience, including many who have worked at the shop since the beginning. Welsh said TOL is hoping to grow that number even more by opening a second coffee shop in Purcellville.

But the organization didn’t stop there. In 2021, Welsh, a former director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department whose own daughter has Down-Syndrome, joined the nonprofit and soon began directing the Still Waters program.

Sam Mason Ethan Weitz
Sam Mason, left, and Ethan Weitz pose for a photo at the premier of “Unafraid,” a documentary created by Weitz about Mason’s journey to independent living with support from Tree of Life Ministries.

“I used to work at the county and then I was a special ed teacher. And I couldn’t stop what I was doing. I just had to keep going in retirement,” Welsh said.

She said she prayed asking God where she should go next and within a week, she was at a training for TOL volunteers.

“She volunteered on the spot,” Del Grande said.

Under Welsh’s leadership, the twice-a-month events became multiple weekly activities ranging from sports, fitness, crafts, cooking and games to popular seasonal dances. The organization continue to expand its services to provide support for families placing their adult children with employment at other businesses, schools, nonprofits and county facilities.

But the most recent milestone is TOL’s ability to provide independent housing for partners in 2023. Mason and his roommate, Mitchell Risinger, moved into a two-bedroom home in Purcellville last fall, achieving a dream that both their families were not sure would ever be possible. The new housing has instilled hope and confidence in both Mason and Risinger and will serve as a model as TOL continues to expand its housing opportunities.

“Unafraid”premiered March 22 and shows the personal side of Mason’s journey, including challenges that his community faces daily and the impact that support, encouragement and opportunity can have in facing those challenges.

“It just shows kind of how that support can really help someone grow and reach their potential. [Weitz] called the film “Unafraid”because he saw Sam’s development from being anxious about things—where would his life go, what would he do—to really blossoming and becoming unafraid and facing the future,” Del Grande said.

Welsh isn’t ready to settle yet though, saying that she wanted to have programs like Still Waters all over Loudoun County. The need is so great that community members from Woodbridge drive to Purcellville for the services, she said.

“We know the communities in Loudoun are all different, but based on the needs in other jurisdictions that we serve … it would be so awesome to have a like Still Waters program,” Welsh said.

Del Grande said community members in eastern Loudoun are welcome at the organization’s western Loudoun events, but the distance barrier can make it hard for residents to attend, which is why expanding further east is on TOL’s bucket list.

“We need some volunteer leadership in that area to really get that off the ground,” Del Grande said.